Male homosexuality advertises the risk of the sexual itself as the risk of self-dismissal, of losing sight of the self… — Leo Bersani
If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em. — John Waters
The latter quote adorns the end of my Grindr profile, and while it may seem out of place on an app mostly known for facilitating random hookups, personally I’ve always needed just a little something beyond the physical to spark an encounter. To that end, I have a preference for men who are well read. But if I’m being brutally honest with myself, that’s not an entirely unproblematic desire: books cost money after all, so there is, perhaps, a certain elitism inherent in that requirement. And to enjoy the types of books I like (and I will judge your collection) you probably need some education, albeit not necessarily formal, but still education that requires time that not everyone has as they struggle to survive. Yet even given the barriers of entry, I’ve never once been called out on that quote, or my requirement for a degree of learnedness as the price required to ride this ride – if nothing, it’s been one that lends “respectability” to otherwise unrespectable pursuits. It is, to be clear, a preference I extend to selecting friends as well.
Interestingly, time and money – the very requirements for learning – are the exact same luxuries required to achieve a gym body: time to work out and money for workout gear or a gym membership. So what happens if a preference for a gym body is someone else’s price of admission? Great disdain.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: one requirement (gym body) is superficial, the other (book smarts? awareness? education?) is not. I could spend several thousand words questioning that notion, but instead I’d like to invite you to think about the requirements we often consider decidedly non-superficial – attributes like witty, smart, cosmopolitan, funny, outgoing, adventurous, educated, etc. – and consider how many of them are actually inherent characteristics over which we have little (if any) control, how many are classist, and with that in mind, how they might be problematic even if they don’t align with how we traditionally define superficial per se.
I’ll leave that up to you to mull over. What follows is not about that.
What follows is about this ridiculous notion that the gay male community is the functional equivalent of high school, or some ongoing Mr. World competition. It’s about what happens when you focus on a single behavior absent perspective, and how doing so can reinforce a feedback loop that perpetuates the very problem you’re attempting to address. It’s about the danger of critiquing queers without fully understanding queer history, a situation that seems to arise more and more these days, even while some of the most vocal critics are queer people themselves.
If you’ve not read the piece linked above, it’s the story of a guy who dated a dude we’ll call Ken. The author hints that he may have felt as if Ken was out of his league (which invites some compelling questions of its own, as does the fact that that all the author really shares about Ken are his physical attributes.) Ken asks the author to spend a day at the beach with his friends. The author feels slighted when he doesn’t seem to mesh well with said friends, and chalks this primarily up to his body type, admittedly with some vacillating self-reflection on whether perhaps it had something to do with his own lack of confidence in the situation. The author proceeds to examine how this one-off situation is endemic to gay male interaction on a far broader level, apparently blind to the fact that his own thesis, that gay men distance themselves from those who don’t conform to a certain body type, is at least somewhat undercut by the very fact that Ken took him – the author (who by his own characterization is not a Ken doll) – with him to the beach to spend time with Ken’s equally Kennish friends in the first place. Were this supposed distancing nearly as prevalent as the author suggests, it seems unlikely Ken would be so quick to introduce his “weird-shaped” beau to his friends – friends who apparently all looked like they just stepped out of an A&F catalogue. However, to the author’s credit, the piece also includes exactly one other encounter in which the he was shot down for a potential hookup based on his weight. It also includes some very carefully curated quotes from a paper on gay male body image from which the OP extrapolates some ... uh, creative conclusions; the paper was written by a then Psych BA whose findings are based on a study with a whopping sample size of twelve [Midwestern, Caucasian] gay men.
I’m aware that I could certainly be accused of oversimplifying the author’s point here, but I’d suggest my oversimplification is not nearly as harmful as his own. To be clear, my intent is not to minimize the very real pain that arises when struggling with body image, rather I want to question the broader assumptions about the gay male community throughout his piece specifically, and quite a number of similarly problematic ones I’ve recently read.
Because I talk a lot about context throughout this discussion, I’ll share my own: when I first read the article, I blanched. I was brought up in an environment where house business was sacred. There were reasons for that – reasons many people raised in less than optimal circumstances will likely innately understand. When you come of age in that kind of environment, and you’re a minority, you have a doubly complicated perspective on seeing your people’s dirty laundry aired. Much like your childhood, you just know no one outside your family will truly get the situation and all its related dysfunctional ambivalence. As a minority, this is compounded by knowing that the general public is all too eager to have their stereotypes of you reinforced. Coming from this frame of reference, seeing “family secrets” spilled for mass consumption induces a reflexive cringe as you consider the possibility of what they will take away. It’s irrational of course: no one incident, person, or perspective can ever represent an entire people, but it’s still an irrationality based on a realistic assessment of human nature.
I share that in awareness that it’s possible everything I’m writing here is some weird form of transference, or simply an effort at damage control. But lately I’ve seen a smattering of pieces like this specifically aimed at gay males, and frankly, many of them are problematic in ways worth exploring.
The first issue with pieces like this is that they suggest a gay male specificity that doesn’t really exist. This article in particular reinforces the popular notion that gay men are vapid, egotistic queens who obsess over pretty baubles (human or otherwise) to the exclusion of all else, and it does so without questioning whether we really possess some unique appreciation for beauty, and if we do, why that might be. The essentializing narratives that structure this piece (and those like it) remain stubbornly averse to context, never bothering to explore, for example, the cultural positioning and socialization of gay men as the ultimate arbiters and appreciators of aesthetics – or as it’s been put another way, as superficial.
So, let’s examine an example: let’s take a step back and look at what might be behind the Ken Doll™ phenomenon the author describes.
The author cites one researcher who posits that internalized homophobia is a component. There is undoubtedly truth to that in some cases, but there are also a significant number of other factors that have gay men trotting off to the gym to attain a certain physique.
The first, and perhaps most influential historical factor, is AIDS. In the infancy of the crisis, there was precious little knowledge of the disease including how it was transmitted and how to prevent contraction. All gay men knew was that their friends and lovers were dying at an astoundingly alarming rate, and it quickly became clear that one telltale sign of the illness was “wasting syndrome,” a substantial weight loss involving significant muscle atrophy. In an entirely reasonable reaction, gay men began to work out in droves, building as much muscle as possible in an attempt to stave off this affliction. Though significant advances have been made in treating HIV infection, the results of the crisis still linger, “… AIDS [having] contributed to gay men perpetuating a subculture that lines up masculinity with sexual prowess, physicality, and strength, in order to demonstrate a healthy body full of vitality that is not associated with images of HIV-positive men.”1
Tellingly, a look at photos from the era directly preceding the AIDS crisis reflects a rather different aesthetic, one that, today, would more likely be associated with rough trade rather than the highly stylized, clean cut, gym-honed physique referenced by the author. But if some of those photos still show guys who look they could kick ass, that was often practical, many having developed toned physiques for precisely that reason, hoping that even if their mannerisms might get them clocked as gay, their bodies would be intimidating enough to deter physical assault, or barring that, they would at least be better prepared to defend themselves.
HIV and physical violence are still realities for many gay men, though their impact throughout the community has thankfully diminished. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that recent history shapes contemporary culture, in the same way that exclusion from hegemonic masculinity can shape the desire to bulk up in an unconscious effort to co-opt one of its attributes, or how feelings of disenfranchisement can motivate excessive body discipline as a means of gaining control over something (c.f., eating disorders in gay men) or how media representations influence gay male body norms (depictions of gay men typically reflecting a fit, perfectly groomed stereotype) or even how increased scrutiny over the male physique is not a uniquely gay phenomenon at all, rather it’s quickly taking hold in the broader culture.
Then again, some gay guys just want to look a certain way. After all, let’s not generalize.
But Mike, I hear you saying, that’s not what the author in this piece is really talking about. Fair enough, though I think it would be foolish to ignore the tacitly implied judgment of the “objectively beautiful” people referenced throughout.
The author’s primary contention seems to be with the perceived transactional nature of our physical evaluations, and history once again provides some clues. Cruising culture was developed in a time when the law made it impossible for gay people to congregate, never mind how few would be willing to risk doing so even were they legally able. Gay men in those days didn’t have the time to exchange pleasantries, to discuss favorite books, films, or records. In short, cruising was born out of necessity, transactional in nature precisely because it had to be.
But Mike, that’s ancient history.
It sure is. Limited cultural transmission is a bitch, ain’t it? Let me explain: as gay men, we typically have no one in our formative years to teach us how to be gay. Most of us don’t go through the awkward stages of dating, first kisses, etc., in our early teens with nervous but well-meaning parents guiding our moves. We don’t see ourselves depicted on TV or in the movies, and if we do, the characters are frequently sanitized and one-dimensional. We simply don’t have the same range of known options to model our courting behavior after as our straight counterparts. We learn how to gay date, how to gay kiss, and how to gay fuck in the bars, in the clubs, and on the streets. This lack of exposure to broader possibilities and centralized locus of acculturation means patterns tend to remain rather staid. Things are changing for sure, but this is still the dominant reality for many men entering the “gay lifestyle.” Nonetheless, the fact that these rites are repeatedly passed down, imparted to each new generation by the prior, suggests a far more open community and significantly greater cross-generational, cross-tribal interaction than we’re accustomed to hearing about. This is a communal cycle that belies the author’s cynical characterization of the community as some sort of walled garden.
Of course, even with all of this context, I still won’t argue that there aren’t self-obsessed, vain, superficial queers: certainly there are – we are people after all. But making generalizations that could lead readers to believe that the loathsome gays represent the bulk of our community? Yeah, I take issue with that. Furthermore, pieces like this always seem to recklessly intimate that the behaviors their authors find troublesome are somehow uniquely homosexual, as if either fat shaming or evaluating the sexual desirability of someone you’ve just met are the exclusive domain of gay men. Hint: straight people do both all the time; the homos have hardly cornered the market on the “economy of sex.”
In fact, I’m willing to go so far as to suggest that if there is any true economy of sex, it’s a decidedly heteropatriachal marketplace, one that codifies relationships via contract law and one that views desire – and the very bodies it inhabits – as a form of property that can be effectively owned by another. It’s an economy a good number of gay men have disavowed over the years, hinting at modes of relating that refute the very same heteronormative values many contemporary gay men now aspire to emulate (even as they bemoan the outcomes.)
What the hell are you talking about, Mike?
What I mean is not all gay men do the traditional relationship dance. For example, the piece obscures the multitude of progressive ways in which gay men have structured loving relationships, some of which don’t even contain a strong element of mutual physical attraction. These are the happy, smiling gay couples on Grindr looking for “friends” and theirs is not a particularly uncommon relationship model among gay men. They look for sexual fulfillment outside their relationship for any number of reasons, one of which may be that the couple isn’t particularly physically attracted to each other to begin with, or perhaps they’re sexually incompatible. By allowing sexual fulfillment that pushes – if not entirely abandons – traditional relationship boundaries, some (though certainly not all) creative gay men have formed different modes of loving relationality – arrangements where a single partner is not looked to for absolute fulfillment, and where desire is not owned by the “other half.” So, if this is an economy of sex, it’s a socialism thumbing its nose at the capitalist field day that is the hetero “norm.” This is another gay reality, but one that’s oft overlooked in gay male hit pieces. Why? Because this reality elucidates that it’s not all about sex for many gay men, that gay men will date, fall in love with, and even commit to a partner for reasons having little to do with sex, but will still remain open enough not to deny each other the joy of jouissance.
The piece also barely touches on the diversity of the gay male aesthetic, instead pushing the inane notion that there’s a singular ideal. The author namechecks categories like otter, cub, bear, et. al., but reduces the existence of these down to a complex sexual classification system that willfully elides the fact that the very real people who happily adopt these labels have ardent devotees and are more than welcome in the broader community. Go to brunch and then tell me gay men only fraternize within their own tribe. Sure, there are occasional cliques, typically owing to the very, very small size of our population. But jocks fuck chubs, and sometimes daddies and twinks are great friends (though probably not if daddy has a complex.)
Lastly, the piece misses the – dare I say it – very joy in what I’d refer to as casual cruising (which, yes, is a reality in gay male culture) failing to see it for the communal activity it is, one which if taken breezily rather than personally creates playful sociability that can be entirely fun irrespective of whether you get laid or not.
After all this you may still say, but Mike, those mean gays on the beach wouldn’t even engage with the OP. That was pretty well addressed in some of the comments on the original piece, and to a degree, by the author himself, but let me offer a few thoughts. First, let’s bear in mind that OP was an outsider to an existing group of friends. The author also drops some not so subtle hints about his own discomfort going into the situation, and I’d suggest that has far more to do with him and his own feeling of being out of his element than some disdain on the part of the “objectively” (problematic in itself, but whatever) beautiful boys his trick palled around with. And yes, as I mentioned before, there are some bad gays: we’re not all perfect. There are ageist gays, there are racist gays, and there are gays who won’t hang around with anyone but the “beautiful people.” What there is not, however, is some superficial gay specificity.
Intelligently critiquing the queer community is fine provided it’s done holistically, but as the author should well know, sometimes it’s important to look beyond the surface.
Postscript: There are many great resources that explore origins of certain gay male behavioral patterns, but a very straightforward, practical and non-theoretical primer is The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs. I’d highly recommend it if you have an interest in the subject and would like an objective overview of the roots of behaviors for which gay men are so often damned absent examination of how our treatment in society shapes their very formation.
On a technical note, I want to aim specifically at one extrapolation the author made from a piece of research he quoted.
Involvement in the gay community seems to be a second factor leading to body dissatisfaction (Beren, Hayden, Wilfley & Grilo 1996).
The author derived this
A segment of the queer male population is not only choosing friends and rationing affection based on waist size and muscle mass, but they are aggressively enforcing these standards.
This is a huge leap, and one that is not necessarily true, at least not without a lot of additional substantiating research, or minimally, a definition of terms. First, we need to define “involvement in the gay community” as well as specifically what “community” we’re talking about. In this context, it appears community involvement indicates going to the bars; the paper’s author clearly states, “This study is limited to men who are assimilated and active in the gay male community” and then proceeds to center the discussion on the bar experience. The fact that bars/clubs (whether straight or gay) tend to be judgmental atmospheres aside, it’s a well-recognized fact that significant exposure to images (media or live) of “ideal” body types reinforces existing body image issues. It does not, however, in any way suggest some enforcement of standards by those occupying those body types, nor does it necessarily indicate choice of association based on same, anecdotal evidence offered by twelve subjects notwithstanding.
1 Cooper, Andrew. Changing Gay Male Identities. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.